Monday, January 3, 2011

Thailand Fishing Cat Project

During my trip to Thailand, I was fortunate to be able to visit Namfon Cutter's fishing cat research and conservation project in Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park. Dr. Dao, veterinarian at Khao Kheow Open Zoo, and I drove to the park in south central Thailand (at the northern end of the Malayan Peninsula) to learn about Namfon's work. I have previously met Namfon and our AAZK chapter has provided some small grants to support her efforts, so I was very excited to be able to see the site first hand.
The park is in a beautiful location, right on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Although it may be difficult to tell from the photos, this is an area that is heavily impacted by humans due to fish and shrimp farming. The region was once almost entirely coastal freshwater and mangrove wetlands, but most have been converted to rice fields and aquaculture ponds. Some of the mangrove areas are now being restored, but most of the habitat has been significantly altered.

This is an example of a fish/shrimp pond with aerators.

Namfon is currently studying cats living near the park headquarters, in an area that is used extensively for fish farming. She has been working here for two years, and has had great success in learning about the population of fishing cats living here. She has managed to capture and radiocollar 17 cats during that time. In this photo, her research assistants are tracking a 3-year-old female.

Namfon also employs camera traps to survey her population. What I found amazing is that all of this science is taking place in an area with lots of human activity. There are dikes around the ponds and that's where they cats walk around during the night once the people have gone in. In fact, they turn the cameras off during the day or else they would get tons of photos of the farmers.
During the day, the cats rest in the tall grass surrounding the ponds or out in the rice fields. We tracked the female to a thick area of grass. Knowing she was so close was very exciting!

Namfon is actually very encouraged by how well the cats seem to be able to manage to live alongside people here. She feels that as long as they have their small corridors of grass for hiding, resting, and denning they will be able to persist in the region. She says they have abundant food in the rodents and natural prey they can obtain as well as anything they can glean from the farms.

Periodically, the ponds are drained for harvesting the crop and this leaves some free food for the cats. The farmers alert Namfon when they will be draining the ponds so she can set up cameras to monitor the cats. This process has proven very successful at getting lots of images.
It was clear that fishing cats heavily used this area as there were tracks EVERYWHERE! This was a huge surprise to me as I had always thought they were super elusive, but signs of them were everywhere, especially along the dusty paths on the dikes.

Other very visible signs were frequent scats, usually colored white from the remains of the fish they ate. Namfon even pointed out that fishing cats will use common latrines.

The cats are so bold that they even mark the farmers' sheds and supplies by spraying! (Note urine on plastic bag.) If you've ever worked around fishing cats you know they have a very strong, distinctive odor, so the farmers aren't too wild about that!

Despite the ability of fishing cats to survive in and around Khao Sam Roi Yod, they do face some serious conservation issues. Namfon has worked very hard to build support for fishing cats in the area as well as to be able to gain access to private land for her research. This takes developing relationships and trust with the farmers over long periods of time. Despite her success, poaching and retribution for livestock depredation is a problem. Recently, Namfon has lost ten of her collared cats and some of these losses are confirmed incidences of poaching. Fishing cats are often accused of killing chickens. When these reports arise, Namfon will respond and set up cameras to find out if cats are really the culprits. (Often, it's feral dogs.) If fishing cats are confirmed to be causing the problem, Namfon will help the farmers construct wire pens for securing the chickens at night. This is a very low cost solution (approximately $100) that has been very successful in gaining support from farmers.

This is a newly secured chicken pen.

We also visited another farm where a young fishing cat is kept captive. This cat was found as an infant in a rice field after being injured by a harvesting machine. As you can see, it is kept in a very small cage but Namfon is hoping to work with the farmer to build a larger, more suitable enclosure. This was very distressing to see as the cat did not even have a box to hide in and was clearly very stressed. This cat is not releasable and will likely remain with the farmer due to rather unfathomable politics. I can't imagine it would cost too much to provide the materials to build a new enclosure. Seems like this would be a great project for an AAZK chapter?
If anyone would like to help this little girl, please let me know.

In the afternoon, Namfon took us by boat up a canal into a region of the park with little development or farming. This is where she plans her next study site and it will be interesting to see how the population compares here in both size and behavior.

Overall, it was very encouraging to visit this project and leave with such a positive feeling. According to Namfon, "The human/cat conflicts here are manageable and there is a good chance for future for the fishing cat." With so much depressing news in felid conservation this was a really uplifting statement!

So, what can we do to help fishing cats survive? Of course, supporting projects like this is a really concrete way to make a difference. Buying a few rolls of wire for a chicken pen can literally save a cat's life. Making a donation to help Namfon's outreach program to farmers and communities can help an entire region to value wildlife. But also think about the consumer choices we make and their impact on conservation. Seeing how this habitat has been completely transformed as a result of the human appetite for seafood reinforced how important it is to think about making those purchases be as sustainable as possible.

For lots more information on this project, please visit Namfon's website. She has all sorts of camera trap photos of her study subjects and more information on her community efforts. She is my hero!

Finally, I'll wrap up this marathon post with some photos of one of the perks of being a dedicated fishing cat researcher. The park supports Namfon's work by providing her with housing - a little bungalow right on the ocean! It is a very sweet spot and we were lucky to be able to spend the night with her. Thanks for everything Namfon!
Namfon and Dr. Dao on the river.


deborrah said...

thank you for sharing this! it's nice to see that people and wildlife CAN coexist peacefully.

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